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How the NFL came to the decision to suspend Ezekiel Elliott, and what comes next

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 5 days ago By Ben Volin
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Jerry Jones is reportedly “furious” about the NFL suspending his star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, for six games. Cowboys fans and fantasy football owners also surely can’t be happy that Elliott will, as of now, sit out 37.5 percent of the regular season.

But remember, this is the outcome we all wanted. Including Jones.

“We” means anyone who was outraged at the NFL’s handling of Ray Rice’s discipline — an initial two-game suspension that looked toothless at the time, then even more pathetic and tone deaf to the serious issue of domestic violence when the elevator video was eventually leaked to TMZ. I certainly was one of those people, and I suspect many of you were, too.

The NFL responded by cleaning up the language in its personal conduct policy, beefing up its investigative unit, and strengthening the penalties for domestic violence. All the owners agreed to it, and the NFL followed its new procedures to a T.

NFL chief spokesman Joe Lockhart was asked on Friday what he thought of Jones’s frustration with the league and his support of Elliott. Last month, Jones said, “I have reviewed everything, and there is absolutely nothing — not one thing — that has anything to do with domestic violence.”

“I can say that we believe this investigation was thorough, exhaustive, and fair to all parties involved,” Lockhart said.

In other words, “Sorry, Jerry. These are the rules now.”

They are all on display here: The NFL conducting its own investigation, with its own experts. The league conducting a more thorough investigation than law enforcement could. The league punishing a player even though the legal system declined to press charges. And the league using a panel of distinguished advisers to help guide Roger Goodell with his punishment.

“I think the investigation conducted by the league was thorough, it was comprehensive, it was carefully done, and it certainly provides substantial credible evidence to support the commissioner’s decision with respect to Mr. Elliott,” said Peter Harvey, former Attorney General for New Jersey and one of four advisers to Goodell on the matter.

Following the Rice, Adrian Peterson, and Greg Hardy fiascos of 2014-15, the NFL would never again be caught under-punishing a player for a domestic issue. In December 2014, the NFL announced a revised policy, which included “a baseline suspension of six games without pay for violations involving assault, battery, domestic violence, dating violence, child abuse, other forms of family violence, or sexual assault, with considerations given to possible mitigating or aggravating circumstances.” The NFL also hired Lisa Friel, a former sex crimes prosecutor in New York County, to head its own investigations.

The new policies and investigative procedures haven’t always worked — former Giants kicker Josh Brown, for example, somehow received only a one-game suspension last year despite several alleged incidents with his wife that the NFL didn’t uncover.

But the NFL certainly seemed to follow its own playbook this time.

The NFL explained that it based its punishment solely on three incidents between Elliott and Tiffany Thompson in Columbus, Ohio, during the week of July 16, 2016. An incident this past March also was considered, in which video showed Elliott pulling down a woman’s shirt and touching her breast. Elliott has been alleged to have had several more off-field incidents, but the NFL didn’t consider them.

The NFL made sure its investigation was thorough — Harvey said that the NFL’s report was more than 160 pages and had more than 100 exhibits. Elliott and his attorneys were able to respond to the report in person, but offered only hypotheticals that couldn’t be proven, like Thompson had hurt herself by falling down stairs.

The investigators were able to find photos on Thompson’s phones that revealed her bruises, then studied the metadata and pieced together the events to determine that Thompson had been with Elliott during those days in question, and that domestic violence had likely occurred. The Columbus district attorney’s office was not able to examine the metadata on the phone, because of limitations in resources.

“While he had many of the photographs taken by Ms. Thompson, he did not have the metadata to know that these photographs were taken the same day as she alleged she was injured by Mr. Elliott,” Harvey said of the district attorney. “It was also not lost on me that the Columbus district attorney, while not bringing any charges against Mr. Elliott, nonetheless said to NFL investigators that he believes Ms. Thompson.”

Finally, the NFL handed its investigative report over to four advisers, none of whom spoke to any of the others, Harvey said.

“We examined very carefully the defense arguments, and we came to the conclusion — at least I reached the conclusion individually — that Mr. Elliott engaged in physical force against Ms. Thompson, and that it caused injury,” he said.

But the advisers didn’t recommend any punishment. That was all up to Goodell, who kept the punishment at six games after determining that “the evidence does not support finding either mitigating or aggravating factors.”

Elliott still has appeal rights, and his case will likely be heard before the start of the season. Hardy had his suspension reduced from 10 to four games by an independent arbitrator, so Elliott certainly has a chance of seeing his punishment reduced, as well.

But Goodell and the NFL made their point with the six-game suspension. And they covered themselves from criticism by giving Elliott a more severe punishment than they gave Tom Brady (four games) for the deflation of footballs.

They did what they are supposed to do for players who allegedly commit heinous acts. Just like we all wanted.

LOOKING AHEAD

Is Brissett really in their plans?

The performance of Jacoby Brissett this year has recalibrated our perception of the events of the last year.

Brissett did not have a good spring, we’re told, and he continues to play inconsistently this camp. Brissett barely took any reps in the joint practices with Jacksonville, then didn’t get into the preseason opener until deep into the third quarter. Add in Bill Belichick’s recent comments that Brissett doesn’t have a set role, and it makes us question whether Brissett will still be with the Patriots this year.

So when the Patriots declined to trade Jimmy Garoppolo this past offseason, was it because he’s the heir apparent, or because they don’t have faith in Brissett as the backup? When they brought Brissett off injured reserve last season, was it because they respected him so much (as was written at the time), or was it because he really needed the work?

Patriots president Jonathan Kraft made a couple of interesting comments before Thursday night’s preseason game that further illuminated the Patriots’ decision to keep Garoppolo this offseason.

He didn’t talk about Garoppolo being the future of the franchise, or the Steve Young to Brady’s Joe Montana. Kraft spoke only of Garoppolo’s value to the Patriots in 2017.

“Jimmy Garoppolo is a very good quarterback,” Kraft said on 98.5 The Sports Hub. “When you have a very good quarterback at a critical position — you’re playing for this year, and you want to give your team the best chance of winning. We think Jimmy is the right person to back up Tom Brady, and that’s the case.”

The Patriots believe that Garoppolo could still lead them to a Super Bowl should Brady go down. And that was reason enough to keep him.

Add in the fact that Garoppolo costs the Patriots only $895,077 this year, and keeping him around as the backup makes even more sense. The Patriots don’t have to make a decision on Garoppolo until next March, and with Brady now 40 years old, the prudent move is to take a wait-and-see approach with Garoppolo.

But if Brissett doesn’t make a big jump this camp, the Patriots could find themselves in a situation where they have no choice but to keep Garoppolo next year, even if it’s on a franchise tag worth $25 million-$26 million. He knows the system cold, and he looks ready to take the reins.

If they let Garoppolo walk in free agency, or tag-and-trade him like they did with Matt Cassel, the Patriots would have a 41-year-old starter in Brady and one or two newbies behind him. That would be a disaster scenario for a franchise hoping to keep the success going long after Brady retires.

The less Brissett impresses, the more the Patriots can’t afford to get rid of Garoppolo, no matter the cost.

GUEST APPEARANCE

Leftover thoughts on the Jaguars

A couple of other notes on the Patriots-Jaguars joint practices from last week:

■ The Jaguars seemed to benefit from facing the Patriots’ complicated schemes on both sides of the football. On offense, no team varies its personnel and formations as much as the Patriots, forcing the Jaguars to sharpen their substitution mechanics. The Patriots’ constant shifts and motions before the snap also gave the Jaguars a good crash course in defensive communication.

“They do multiple things that they are going to test you on communication,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. “We had noise work during the week, which we need from the standpoint of the offense and defense, with our signals.”

And defensively, the Jaguars have been primarily a Cover-3 team in recent years, so facing some of the Patriots’ varied defensive schemes benefited Blake Bortles and the offense.

“They do a lot of different things in coverage with their safeties, whether they’re sprinting their guys down or staying too high and doing different stuff,” Bortles said. “It’s been good going against different looks. It’s definitely different than what we see in Jacksonville.”

■ For a team that has some decent talent on both sides of the ball, we’re surprised the Jaguars didn’t do anything at quarterback this offseason.

They have some great skill players on offense, led by budding stars Allen Robinson and Leonard Fournette. They have invested heavily in the offensive line and have a talented defense with such veterans as Malik Jackson, Calais Campbell, Paul Posluszny, and Jalen Ramsey.

The Jaguars just don’t have anyone to throw the football, which will continue to hold back the franchise. They are still tepidly standing behind Bortles as their starting quarterback, but new football boss Tom Coughlin won’t be wedded to him. Bortles appears to be on a short leash, and the Jaguars can still release him before his salary becomes guaranteed next March.

And no offense to Chad Henne, but we don’t understand why the Jaguars continue to stand by him as the No. 2 quarterback, when they instead could have acquired someone to push Bortles. Colin Kaepernick, for example, would be a much better option as the No. 2 than Henne, who last played in 2014 and led his team to three blowout losses. But Jacksonville is deeply Republican and one of the country’s biggest military cities, and Kaepernick is likely too controversial to sign there.

But we wonder if the Jaguars will be in the trade market for a quarterback this season. They could be an intriguing trade partner for Jacoby Brissett, who still has three years left on his contract and would have more of a chance to develop in Jacksonville.

ETC.

Dolphins are not sunk with Cutler

All Smokin’ Jay Cutler jokes aside, we really do like his signing by the Dolphins. We had them pegged as a 10-win, playoff-caliber team with Ryan Tannehill, and our expectation doesn’t change much with Cutler.

He still has a big arm, he knows Adam Gase well and played well in his system, and the warm weather of Miami should be much friendlier to him than playing in the frigid NFC North. None of the other available quarterbacks (Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Brock Osweiler) have Cutler’s upside in this offense.

Cutler, 34, signed a one-year deal worth $10 million, with another $3 million available in incentives. In theory, if Cutler plays well this year, he could put the Dolphins in a tough position to pick him or Tannehill moving forward. Tannehill has three years and $55.8 million left on his contract after this year, but only $5.525 million guaranteed (in 2018), giving the Dolphins options with a trade or release.

But Tannehill is five years younger than Cutler, a better athlete than Cutler, more committed to football than Cutler, and should have plenty of good football ahead of him once he returns from knee surgery. And Tannehill’s $17.475 million salary won’t look so bad next year compared with the going rate for free agent quarterbacks.

Extra points

The NFL’s announcement last week that it will hire 21-24 full-time officials is nice for public relations, but we question how much of an effect it will have on the product. The officials will get some additional work by working minicamps and spring practices, but the only significant way for them to improve is by getting real game reps throughout the year, which still won’t happen. Plus, the NFL is now setting itself up for trouble, as this system can give the impression that the 100 or so part-time officials aren’t as good or qualified as the full-timers.

Kaepernick, who is still a tremendous athlete and threw 16 touchdown passes against just four interceptions last year, would unquestionably be a better option than the current backup quarterbacks for the following teams, in addition to Jacksonville: Baltimore (Ryan Mallett), the Jets (Josh McCown, Bryce Petty, Christian Hackenberg), Oakland (Connor Cook); Dallas (Kellen Moore); Atlanta (Matt Schaub); Seattle (Trevone Boykin). He might be a better backup for Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo than T.J. Yates, too . . . Congrats to Texans offensive lineman David Quessenberry, who played in Wednesday’s preseason game against the Panthers for the first time since he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma three years ago. “It was probably the most nervous I’ve been for a football game in my life,” he told reporters . . . Left tackle Duane Brown is holding out this camp, and the Texans may have to meet his demands, as fill-ins Chris Clark and Kendall Lamm were turnstiles against the Panthers. Brown wants a raise from his $9.4 million salary . . . The Bills look smart for trading some players who weren’t in their future plans (such as Sammy Watkins) and accumulating draft picks. The Bills now have two 1’s, two 2’s, and two 3’s in next year’s draft. Then again, the picks are only as good as the people picking them. Ex-general manager Doug Whaley drafted Watkins No. 4 overall, ahead of Mike Evans and Odell Beckham. Let’s see if new Bills GM Brandon Beane is a better evaluator . . . Possible wins for the Jets this year: vs. Jaguars in Week 4, at Browns in Week 5, vs. Bills in Week 9, vs. Chargers in Week 16, vs. Patriots in Week 17. Not probable, just possible.

Error sign

With quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s season in limbo because of a knee injury, the Dolphins signed Jay Cutler to a one-year deal. Cutler, who had joined Fox as an analyst, will have to cut back on mistakes to help Miami return to the playoffs for a second straight season. The 11-year veteran is one of six players to throw more than 140 interceptions since 2006.

Related slideshow: 10 most, least likely Super Bowl matchups (Provided by FOX Sports) 

Super Bowl odds are a popular commodity this time of year as we await the return of football in September. They’re fun to think about and digest, but in the end no one truly knows the fate of every team in the NFL – not even Vegas.However, Golden Nugget casino released odds on Friday for every possible Super Bowl matchup, which is far more extensive than just the odds for every team to win it all. We dug through the entire list, which you can check out here, to find the 10 most and least likely matchups for Super Bowl LII. And we send our apologies to Jets and 49ers fans in advance. It ain’t pretty. 10 most, least likely Super Bowl LII matchups, according to Vegas

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